Can the telecoms industry boost sustainability?

Although not the biggest culprit of heightened carbon emissions and waste production by far, the telecommunications industry must still make its operations, products and services more sustainable. What should telcos focus on to reduce their environmental impact?  

The telecommunications industry contributed 2.6 percent of total global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2020, according to the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ (ETNO) Association.  

Although the sector isn’t as energy or resource-intensive as the likes of electricity production and manufacturing, many key players are already taking steps to improve their environmental impact. Telefónica, home to telecoms giants such as O2, recently updated its sustainable financing framework, which now focuses on implementing sustainable initiatives into all its products and services through renewable, digitalized solutions. 

All telcos — from large, global corporations, to smaller, local operators — have a role to play in making their services more sustainable. So, what are the areas that the telecoms industry needs to improve most? 

Reduce, reuse, refurbish? 

Electronic waste is a huge global issue.  

The United Nations estimates that 40 million tonnes of electronic waste is generated each year, with up to 80 per cent heading straight to landfill. As electronic waste disintegrates, harmful toxins and chemicals release into the air, water, and land, which can cause huge damage to both human health and the planet. 

Masses of telecoms devices become electronic waste — mobile phones, SIM cards, wires, batteries, and other equipment are often in service for just a few years. The glass that makes up a device’s screen, however, can take a million years to break down. Many of a device’s other components contain heavy metals including lead, mercury, and cadmium, which, if handled incorrectly, can pollute the environment. 

Additionally, these heavy metals are difficult to source.  

Up to 60 elements from the periodic table can be found in complex electronics like smartphones. Sending old devices to landfill means that for every new device, new raw materials need to be extracted, many of which are finite and gradually depleting. 

To combat this issue, it is crucial for our industry to take a more circular approach. Many big vendors have already announced measures to encourage recycling — for example, Vodafone is 18 months into its circularity program, which aims to repair, resell and refurbish old electronics to eliminate waste and reduce CO2 emissions. 

Dematerialising components 

Adopting circularity practices is essential for telecoms components that must be in a physical form, but what about making others completely non-physical? Dematerialisation is the process of delivering the same product but using less, or no, materials to do so.  

Of course, it would not be possible to make a smartphone or computer digitally, with no material whatsoever, but what about smaller components, like SIM cards? In 2020, 4.5 billion plastic SIM cards were produced worldwide to connect mobile devices to the network, in a plastic and carbon-intensive manufacturing process. Although many telcos have partly dematerialised their SIM card offerings by reducing their size and packaging, the rise of the embedded SIM, or eSIM, could eliminate the need for physical components completely. 

eSIMs have really started to gain traction in the consumer market over the last twelve months, allowing service providers to authenticate devices onto their networks digitally using a remote SIM provisioning system, without the need for any physical components.  

Mobilise recently launched its eSIM as a service, which allows mobile operators to onboard their customers instantly without the need to wait for delivery of a physical SIM card. Through the M-Connect digital platform, customers can install and activate an eSIM through the app with integrated Security Accreditation Scheme for Subscription Management (SAS-SM) software. In just one tap, users can securely download and install their SIM profile and connect their device to the network. 

Not only does this streamline customer onboarding, but it also completely dematerialises this telco essential by reducing plastic waste and carbon emissions associated with SIM card manufacturing and transportation. 

Enabling widespread sustainability 

The reach of sustainability in telecoms goes much further than that of other industries — since 2019 the GSMA has recognized the telecoms sector as a key enabler in addressing the challenges of climate change. 

For example, transportation is a key contributor to global CO2 emissions, responsible for around 24 percent, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). However, telcos are already playing a key role in helping to reduce this figure.  

The rise of telecommunication has changed how we interact by enabling global connectivity at the touch of a button. Many activities and practices that once required face-to-face communication can now be done virtually through various telecoms channels. With the help of telecoms technologies, meetings, healthcare appointments and even surgery can now be done remotely, eliminating the need for a large proportion of travel.  

The transportation sector is just one example of where the true power of telecoms lies — according to the GSMA, the level of emissions prevented through telecom-enabled technology is ten times higher than the emissions of the telecoms industry itself.  

Sustainable operations, products and services are essential for all sectors looking to thrive in the future. Yes, telcos have a role to play in reducing their own waste and emissions but enabling sustainability across other sectors is where telcos have a greater opportunity to make a lasting, sustainable impact on the entire world.